Australian Rescuers Devastated by News of Exposure
The Daily Telegraph (New South Wales, Australia)

At least 250 of the state's elite emergency workers have been told they could die from exposure to lethal levels of asbestos during anti-terrorist training drills.

The personnel at risk include members of the Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) unit, who were told last week that they may have contracted life-threatening illnesses after training on a demolition site at Holsworthy Army Barracks.

The site was set up to simulate rescues in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster and has been regularly used by fire brigade, ambulance, police and army personnel since 2004.

Asbestos has been found in huge piles of rubble which are used to resemble collapsed city buildings.

Emergency workers who spent up to three weeks at a time crawling through the rubble were contacted by their department chiefs last week and told the exposure could kill them.

The calls last week left senior personnel devastated. Asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma can take decades to appear and it may be 30 years before the emergency workers can be cleared of infection.

Even Premier Morris Iemma has visited the site and The Daily Telegraph can reveal he has been warned he has a low-level risk of exposure.

NSW Fire Brigades chief Greg Mullins said last night he was reviewing a scientific assessment of the site and was talking to his own staff, ambulance, police, the Defence Department and unions about the mass exposure.

The Daily Telegraph understands the rescuers have been divided into categories A, B and C, with category A the most severely affected.

Fifteen of the ambulance service's Special Casualty Access Team's 40 members have been diagnosed as category A.

An unknown number of support staff including police, doctors, nurses and hazardous material personnel have also been exposed at the facility.

Mr Iemma, diagnosed as a category C, walked around the site during a visit to Holsworthy last September, soon after becoming Premier.

Commissioner Mullins issued a press release last week stating asbestos had been found at the site, which was used by personnel ''from time to time''.

But today the real story behind the bureaucratic bungle can be revealed.

Following interviews with the state's top-level emergency personnel, it has been established that:

* NO proper tests were done at the site before it became a training ground for hundreds of top-level rescuers in 2004;

* PERSONNEL were kept in the dark for up to a year about the asbestos before being told;

* NSW public officials and a host of ministers may have been exposed;

* AMBULANCE chief Greg Rochford and Commissioner Mullins have been at the site and must face a health clearance; and

* THE Dust Diseases Tribunal is conducting an investigation into the long-term impact the mass exposure could have on emergency services in NSW.

The Fire Brigade took over the training site from the Defence Department in 2004 after an audit found the state's emergency services were not adequately prepared for a terrorist attack.

Mr Mullins told Mr Rochford about the asbestos last week.

''As soon as he was advised we advised all our people. We are obviously offering our people everything they need to deal with this situation,'' a NSW Ambulance spokesman said yesterday.

WorkCover inspectors were called in to shut down the site last week.

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